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High-Tech Ambulance Simulator Debuts in Oregon

Oregon’s Washington County Emergency Medical Services Office and three local schools join forces to put emergency training on wheels.

by / March 21, 2012
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Oregon’s Washington County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and a number of local colleges have partnered to develop a state-of-the-art ambulance simulator.

Called the Mobile Training Unit, the vehicle houses an array of equipment — including lifelike mannequins — to train students in emergency services. A 55-inch video screen is embedded in an exterior panel above the driver’s side rear wheel well of the ambulance, allowing students and trainers to view the simulation taking place inside.

Custom-built by emergency vehicle manufacturer Braun Northwest Inc., the simulator cost approximately $400,000. A lion’s share of the funding was provided by Washington County EMS, but partners Portland Community College (PCC), Oregon Health & Science University’s Department of Emergency Medicine and the Oregon Institute of Technology all contributed funding, equipment or training expertise.

John Saito, dean of allied health, emergency and legal services at PCC’s Cascade Campus, said from conception to rollout, the project took approximately three years. His school’s investment was $100,000 in bond funding that was used to buy the interactive mannequins used in the ambulance simulator.

PCC’s investment in the project enables the school to access the simulator for three years. After that, the school will need to dedicate additional bond funding for further vehicle equipment purchases in order to continue the relationship.

Building the Machine

When first discussing what type of emergency services simulator would be most appropriate, the idea was to use an old van or truck as the vehicle. But that conversation quickly evolved into acquiring an actual ambulance chassis in order to properly simulate situations students would encounter.

“One of the basic goals of simulation is to suspend disbelief in the minds of the students,” Saito said. “So having everything as realistic as possible is one of the things we strived for.”

The inside of the simulator contains a number of laptops in specialized ventilated compartments to control the mannequins — which bleed and breathe among other bodily functions — and other high fidelity audio-visual equipment. It also contains a defibrillator, an airway device called CMAC that allows students and instructors to view intubation placement on video, and a Stryker Power Gurney for moving patients.

Two external generators were added so the vehicle could conduct training sessions for up to 48 hours before needing to return to its home base at Hillsboro Fire Station No. 6 in Hillsboro, Ore.

The simulator made its official debut on March 12, when a training session was conducted for instructors. Saito said students haven’t been put through any simulations yet, but they have seen the vehicle and new equipment. He expects practical use of the simulator to begin in April.

Collaborative Use

Saito said the finer details of how the partner organizations will divvy up usage of the simulator have yet to be determined. He anticipated that PCC would use it 35 to 40 percent of the time, but everyone in the partnership has agreed that given the expensive technology on the vehicle, proper training is a must before rolling it out.

Students at local K-12 schools may also get an up-close look at the simulator. Saito told PCC Communications Specialist James Hill that he may take the vehicle to health education events to promote job opportunities in the health-care field.

In addition, while the simulator looks like a real ambulance and Washington County EMS plans to use it to train some of the medical services personnel at rural fire stations in the area, the vehicle won’t be making any real-life emergency situation appearances.

During the design phase, emergency lights and other features were purposefully left off the vehicle, so it remains strictly an educational tool.

“There are a significant number of lights, but we purposefully did not want to make it emergency-use capable,” Saito said. “Our fear was the county might press it into service.”

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Brian Heaton

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.

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